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Ugandan station still closed, an ill omen for election

Former CBS journalists Ndiwalana Kiwanuka, left, Richard Wasswa and Joesph Kafumbe. (CPJ)

More than a year has passed since the government-influenced Broadcasting Council summarily closed the popular Central Broadcasting Service, or CBS. The council closed the station in September 2009 as riots were erupting in response to the government's decision to block the traditional Buganda king from attending a youth celebration north of the capital, Kampala. Its continued closure bodes ill for independent news coverage of February's presidential election.

The influential CBS was owned by the Buganda kingdom and represented the largest ethnic group, the Baganda, with broadcasts in English and Luganda across the country. On September 10 and 11, 2009, the council shut down CBS and three other stations, Ssubi FM, Radio Two (locally known as Akaboozi), and the Catholic Church's Radio Sapientia, accusing them of inciting violence. While the other three eventually resumed broadcasting, CBS remains closed and most of its staff is unemployed.

"They just broke in and took the transmitter," former CBS news editor Ndiwalana Kiwanuka told me. "We had only covered about two hours of the riots before we were closed." Kiwanuka believes the riots were a pretext to close the station.

The council shuttered the other stations in a similarly sudden fashion. "We actually found out we were suspended via the radio," the managing director of Radio Two, Maria Kiwanuka, told CPJ. "We had just done an interview on Akaboozi (Radio Two) with the minister of information who announced our closure. Akaboozi somehow announced its own closure." The council sent official suspension notices to the stations days after they were switched off. A week passed before Ssubi FM received a letter from the council announcing the closure for "breaching minimum broadcasting standards," Ssubi FM journalist Robert Sempala told CPJ. "We didn't understand the statement," Ssubi FM Program Director Julius Kateega told CPJ. "We felt that we could not play music while gunshots could be heard in town and decided to cover the Baganda riots."

Before suspending a license, the Broadcasting Council typically obtains recordings from a station and negotiates with the station manager, its chairman, Godfrey Mutabazi, told CPJ. But the riots, he said, forced the council to take immediate action. "People were dying on the streets. You can't call a council meeting and wait to take action under an emergency," he said. More than 20 people were killed during the riots, according to news reports. 

The shuttered stations did eventually hand over recordings taken during the riots, but managers said they were never told what content was considered incitement to violence. "We were told the station had incited violence. We had not; we had been very careful," Radio Two's Kiwanuka said, "We had told the public to avoid the dangerous parts of town during the riots." Human Rights Watch had multiple Luganda speakers listen to the CBS recordings during the riots. Although the station called on the public to join the protests and support the Baganda king, Human Rights Watch reported, no references were made encouraging people to violence. "They took all the recordings to find any incriminating evidence of our broadcasts but they didn't find anything," said Kiwanuka of CBS. 

CBS took the government to court late last year claiming the station's closure was illegal. The government made a counter-claim, blaming CBS for loss of life during the riots. In August, Uganda's High Court dismissed the government suit, citing a lack of evidence, according to local reports. The CBS claim is pending.

The Broadcast Council has broad powers to seize transmission equipment without due process and can grant or withhold licenses using an opaque set of conditions. Local journalists complain that the council acts as both prosecutor and judge, taking its orders from on high. Although Mutabazi told CPJ that the council has never received orders from the government, public statements from officials tell another story. In March, presidential press secretary Tamale Mirundi told reporters that CBS's closure was a "cabinet decision" and that the station would not return to the air until it apologized to the government, local reports said.

Prior to the suspensions, all of the stations were popular outlets that aired programs in Luganda, the most widely spoken local language, journalists told me. Geoffrey Ssebaggala, now program coordinator for the Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists, did an investigation into a secret detention center run by the Ugandan army as a reporter for Radio Sapientia in 2008. After the station's management received complaints from the Broadcast Council, Ssebaggala said, he was fired. The Ugandan Human Rights Network reported that many journalists were fired under state pressure in 2009, including three journalists each from Radio Sapentia, Ssubi FM, and one from Radio Two.

The sackings and suspensions have taken a toll on the stations' news coverage.  Political programs on Ssubi FM were suspended and replaced with music, Kateega said. "There is less emphasis on political issues now and more emphasis on music. Our tag line is: Less Talk, More Music," he said. Although it was not responding to a government directive, Ssubi FM decided it was simply not worth risking further closure, News Editor Evelyn Kabiite said.

Those fears are bound to dampen critical coverage of the February 2011 presidential election, CBS's Kiwanuka told me.

According to the Ugandan Journalists Union, members of the ruling party own about 60 percent of the nation's radio stations. None of these stations, local journalists told me, are expected to provide equal coverage to opposition members. 

And if they did think about covering the opposition, here's an episode that would make them reconsider: Back in April, President Yoweri Museveni instructed Felix Okot, owner of the Voice of Lango radio and a ruling party parliamentarian, to publicly apologize for hosting an opposition candidate Olara Otunnu on the station, the Daily Monitor reported. "And that incident took place months before the election," Kiwanuka said. "Let's see what happens in January."

(Reporting from Kampala)

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